Why I Am Only Telling One Side of the Michael Brown Story

As the days have drudged onward since the police shooting of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, MO, I have been knowingly, overtly, and repeatedly telling a particular narrative as it surrounds the events involved.  So have many others.

There has been a predictably large amount of pushback to this narrative coming in a variety of ways and from a variety of motivations, I suspect.  There is also a distinct commonality among them, and one thing almost every single person who has taken issue with this narrative has said to me: “You’re only telling one side of the story.” 

And they’re absolutely right – I am.

Here’s why.

Avoiding the “Right” vs. “Wrong” Narrative.

Some of the dissenters (mostly white, middle class) want to keep changing the Michael Brown and Ferguson story to one about whether the subsequent chaos that’s ensued is “right” or “wrong.”  I don’t want to have that conversation because, in my opinion, it is the wrong conversation.

This is like the parent who enters my St. Louis counseling office with a self-mutilating teen, wanting me to proclaim to the teen how “wrong” his/her behavior is, as if that does anything to actually change the situation.  Clearly if it did, they’d never have ended up in my office, a fact that almost always escapes them.  Some parents are so hell-bent on telling teens how “wrong” they are that they fail to examine why they’re hurting themselves, and what things have lead to that outcome. Usually this is cognitive dissonance on the parents’ part – a reluctance to look at their own part in what has transpired, for fear of the utterly soul-crushing news they have had a hand in their teen’s destruction. The same is true here.

Most people pedaling the “right” vs. “wrong” narrative claim that this is “excusing” behavior, but of course, I have never excused anyone’s actions. I have never said that rioting and looting is a good thing, that it is worth being emulated, or that it is “right.” I have said that when it occurs, we do well to examine the larger system that is in place, because it points to certain realities we might otherwise ignore. I am saying that there is an alternate narrative that people who have not ever suffered likewise tend not to tell, because they don’t realize it’s there, or they don’t want to realize it’s there.  

Black-vs-WhiteAvoiding the “White” vs. “Black” Narrative

Most who are concerned with my “one-sided” presentation also tell me that this is a “white” vs. “black” conversation.  The dichotomy they’re presenting is probably accurate in that the ways this story is being told are through the experiences of “whites” and “blacks.”

If all things were equal, constructing the discussion as “white” vs. “black” would mean that the “white” narrative should be told as equally and forcefully as the “black” narrative, because both sides are of equal value as human experiences, and of equal intensity, necessity, and likelihood to be told. 

But, in this country, all things are not equal between whites and blacks.  Thus, “white” vs. “black” as story-telling vantage points are fine, but also racial realities bearing witness to larger imbalances of social power.

So, instead, I construct the story as the “power group” (composed predominantly of the way socially-in-power, white-privileged individuals react to this situation) and the “lacking power” or “oppressed group” (composed predominantly of black persons and the way they react to this situation).

When I write about Ferguson, I am not telling the narrative of the “power group” purposefully because the imbalance in power means that their narrative is implicit in our laws, in our ways of enforcing those laws, and in our ways of trying and sentencing those who are alleged to have broken those laws. I’m not telling the story of the “power group” because our institutions are already set up to keep it in power, protected, and otherwise un-marginalized.

When I tell only the narrative of the “oppressed group,” I mean implicitly to say that the extent to which Officer Wilson and the institutions he represents have already had their story told and will continue to have their story told is not remotely in danger of being trampled upon.  I am not going to re-tell it as if this isn’t the case.

If you don’t think this is true, consider, for example, that before releasing the name Officer Darren Wilson, a) police waited several days, b) he was out of the St. Louis area and in a secure location, c) he has not been arrested (much less shot), d) if he is arrested, he will be afforded due process in the legal system and a chance to tell his side of the story.

Michael Brown didn’t get any of that, and neither does the “oppressed group” of which is he is a part on a regular basis.

To speak out on behalf of the “power group” is to present it as if it is the “oppressed group”– the one whose narrative is most likely to be marginalized.  The one whose people are most likely to be marginalized.  This is oppressive and evil.

Yet, I believe that many who tell the “power group” narrative aren’t doing so maliciously, and that it is an outgrowth of “unknowing white privilege.”  If you get sidetracked by the “white” part of that terminology, again, please note that it is only a racial reality bearing witness to power dynamics and the terms you should be focusing on: “unknowing…privilege.”  

This is the idea that our tendency (mine and yours) to approach things in a particular way is informed by our particular “in-power” experience of life – our “privilege.”   

That is to say, it is in fact our personal and collective privilege as white folks, the idea that the system is exponentially more likely to “work” for us, that informs our tendency to give deference to the institution of law enforcement and the U.S. justice system as “pure” entities that will help decipher the facts for us so that we can get down to the bottom of just what happened, as if these institutions in themselves are not replete with the very same imbalances of power of which we are a part every day on an individual level.  It is our white privilege that informs our utter unlikelihood to ever be so marginalized that we riot, and our tendency to make the simplistic assessment of those who have as being “wrong.”

So, if you tell the “power group” narrative, chances are you’re not even meaning to tell it as such.  You’re probably just doing so because you are a part of that power group, and also close to others in that group.  Maybe you or those you love are even police officers.  I get that.

michaelbrownIf your intent in telling the “power group” narrative is to say that Officer Wilson is a human being deserving of consideration, I concur.

But if your intent is to say that chances are he won’t get it, I don’t.

If your intent is to say that the police have an incredibly difficult job that no one envies, and to say that the U.S. justice system at times shows itself to be an agent of actual justice, I concur. 

But if your intent is to say that these realities are somehow counterpoints to the systemic problems of those institutions that leave black peoples marginalized, I don’t.

If your intent is to say that you and the police officers you know are not racists as individuals, but just humans trying to find your way through life, part of complex systems that you don’t believe you have much control over, I understand. 

But if your intent is to equivocate your plight or that of the police or the institutions they represent with that of Michael Brown and black people in this country, I strenuously object. 

And that it is why I will continue to tell their story. 

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This post also appeared in a condensed version on Ryan’s blog at The Huffington Post.

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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at ryan@changeincorporated.org.

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